Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Saturday, January 23, 2016

2015-16 CU vs Washington State Basketball Preview #1: An RPI Test Looms

I've seen some interesting things from the Colorado Men's Basketball Team this year, some good, some bad. But nothing previously seen this season prepared me for what went down in the first half between CU and the Washington Huskies on Wednesday night.  It was next-level bad basketball, with the Buffs imploding, steadily, over the course of the final 10 minutes of the opening frame.  For the first half, they turned the ball over an astonishing 12 times, allowed 60% shooting from the field on defense, and let Washington own the paint, getting block and out-rebounded into submission.  While Colorado would rebound a bit, fighting back down the final stretch of the evening, the damage had been done in the first, and the Buffs took a solid 95-83 loss in the Emerald City.
The look of horror and concern on Josh's face is appropriate.  From:
It didn't start out all that bad.  CU was mostly playing with Washington in the opening minutes, and even took a 17-15 lead into the second media time out.  Then, like a sprung trap, UW took off, racing their way out to an expansive lead that the Buffs never recovered from.  It was an 18-5 run over five in-game minutes, and it turned the table on the action.  Over that time frame, the Buffs committed six turnovers, missed a number of easy inside looks, and generally fed into the Husky run.  Colorado was, once again, the creators of their own demise.  It was really hard to watch, like some demon form of the 2014-15 team had reanimated inside the current roster, and was trying to force its way out. Call an exorcist!

All credit to Washington here, they pounced the second CU showed any weakness.  The young, athletic trio of Marquese Chriss, Dejounte Murray, and Malik Dime combined with the ever present scoring prowess of Andrew Andrews to pour down a torrent of points on the Buffs; the 95 allowed a season high. Andrews, as expected, put up amazing numbers, nabbing 33 points, and shooting 16-17 from the free throw line.  What really stunned me, though, was their ability to crush CU in the trenches, swatting back 15 shots (seven from Dime alone), and out-rebounding the Buffs by five.  That's just not what I expected from this matchup, with CU one of the best rebounding teams in the country, and the Huskies one of the most indifferent.  It kept Colorado from finding any footing at Hec-Ed; not the first time.
That's... not a good look.  From: Yahoo Sports
There is something to be said about the way Colorado fought back in the second half.  They cut those turnovers from 12 in the first half to only four more in the second, leading to 50 total points after the break, and finally started to make some headway on the scoreboard, as a result.  Behind another 18/12 double-double from Josh Scott and 21 points on 6-7 three point shooting from Dom Coller, they chipped away at a lead that had ballooned to 22 early in the second frame, getting within seven in the final minutes.  At no point was it ever really threatening to UW, however, and the Buffs rather meekly stepped into the final margin of defeat.

So, opportunity missed in Seattle (completely, utterly), Colorado heads out to the Palouse, looking for a bit of redemption and a split in the Evergreen State.  Wazzou is the only team in the entire Pac-12 with a RPI ranking over 100, and it would be very damaging to the Tournament cause to drop this one.  Beyond just redeeming the ugly performance against the Huskies, CU needs this one for preservation of the ole resume. Hopefully, they'll come out of the first frame tonight in much better shape than they did on Wednesday.


Hype Music for the evening: "Soak up the sun" by Sheryl Crow.

For a game against the Cougars, I present this beauty from Sheryl Crow.  Figured it was appropriate, for some reason. Enjoy!


Tip off from Beasley Coliseum is set for 7pm this evening. Hey, the Buffs aren't going up against the Broncos this week!  A perfect time for... a road game.  *womp-womp*  Coverage can be found on Pac-12 Networks, with the radio call on 850 KOA.

Click below for the preview...

When last we met - 

Up two with the ball and just 10 seconds to play in last year's regular season finale, it seemed as if all Colorado needed to do was get the ball in bounds to Askia Booker, and they would beat the Washington State Cougars.  It was not to be, however.  Ski did collect the inbounds, and was expectedly swarmed by Cougs, but the refs didn't see the traditional foul.  Instead, they saw a held ball, which gave possession back to WSU.  Senior DaVonte Lacy knocked in the game-tying bucket on the ensuing play, and Wazzou went on to roll in overtime.  96-91, just another in a string of gut-kicks in 2014-15.
For the record, I get the held ball call.  Looking back at the replay, I see the arms and hands on Ski's back, but I also see a tie-up in possession.  It could go either way, and I never really got too pissed about it.  If anything, it only further emphasized to me that alternating possession over a true jump ball is obnoxiously pedantic.  From there, Lacy's shot on his senior day was perfunctory, and two quick threes by WSU at the start of the extra frame essentially ended the contest.  Such is life and basketball

In spite of the loss, I was impressed by two of the Buffs stars.  First and foremost, Josh Scott was a monster, putting up 32/12 in 40 minutes of play.  This was the moment I knew his road to recovery from lingering back issues was paying off.  He was running easy in Pullman, beating defenders down the court, jumping freer than before, and otherwise dominating the paint.  His performances had been trending up previously, but this one was declarative.  Askia Booker also had a nice game, outside of the held ball, posting 26 points in his final regular season action in Black & Gold.
A declarative effort from a recovering Josh Scott.
The problem with the overall team effort, though, was the lack of defense being played throughout.  It was a wide-open, fast paced affair, not necessarily to CU's advantage.  Played to 79 possessions (including overtime), the Buffs allowed the run-and-gun Cougars to shoot over 51% from the floor, including 9-18 from deep.  While the Colorado offense was capable of responding, and generally played a strong game away from home, that's not how CU usually puts themselves in position to win on foreign soil.  Certainly, they'll have to bring much better defense to bear than they did either in this one from a year ago, or in their performance against Washington from Wednesday.

The Cougars in '15-'16 - 

RPI is not a perfect metric.  The NCAA's preferred high-level statistical comparison is a reflection of a team's record, strength of schedule (most weight given), and that of their opponents, but not much else. It does not, very importantly, take into consideration things like player availability, when a game takes place, or the margin of victory, and incentivizes simply playing a team with a high RPI rating, rather than actually beating them. Despite all these gripes, the NCAA has been using the index in ranking 'member institutions' for playoff consideration in a number of sports, including basketball, since 1981, and it isn't going away anytime soon. Essentially, your RPI rating isn't important because it's an actual reflection of your ability as a basketball team, it's because the NCAA says it's important -- much like how an ACT or SAT score coming out of high school is not a true reflection of an individual's ability to succeed in college or the real world, but still damn important if you're trying to get into a decent school.

I start here because, in the world of practical RPI math and the ultimate goal of making the NCAA Tournament, keeping these things in the forefront of your mind as the calendar flips from January to February is essential for any basketball fan.  The Pac-12, once an RPI doormat as recently as 2011-12, has, this season, turned into a juggernaut.  Number two overall (just behind the Big XII, and climbing), 11 of the 12 teams in the league are in the RPI top-65; very strong, indeed.  The lone holdout, though: Washington State. With a 9-9 record built, mostly, on garbage wins against teams in the RPI 150+, they are a comparative bottom-feeder, coming in to tonight's action 162nd in the country.  This is a very roundabout way of saying that CU can lose to just about any team on this conference, and I wouldn't bat an eye.  Washington State, though... the Buffs cannot lose to WSU, even on the road, and feel comfortable on Selection Sunday.
WSU's win over UCLA is one of their few highlights this season.  From: the SD Union Tribune.
The Cougars are not a terrible basketball team.  KenPom even ranks this as a 'Tier-B' game, thanks to location.  They're just not in any way shape or form a 'good' one.  I will grant they play decent offensive basketball (an adjusted 1.07 ppp), with good shooting numbers (top-50 in both 2-point and 3-point percentage), but nothing special in a season of improving offensive numbers.  It's a little weird, because they, unlike a lot of teams at the collegiate level, emphasize the mid-range jumper, taking over a third of all shots in the inefficient area between the arc and the block.  But, notably, they are 21st nationally in hitting 2-point jumpers, so shoot your shot, I guess.  It's how they stunned UCLA in Pullman back in the opening week of conference play, shooting 61% on all two-point attempts, powering an attack that 1.18 points per possession that day.

Where they do struggle, however, and mightily so, is on the defensive end. Isolating conference play, they're dead last in the league in overall efficiency (close to 1.2ppp), and 10th or 11th in almost every other major statistical category.  It's why, in their five league losses, they're averaging allowing 91 points per, including their last, a 92-71 home loss to Utah that was self-described as 'soft.'  For our purposes, please also note that the Cougars create turnovers at a league-worst 13% clip, and allow 27% of all first attempts in transition.  Allow teams to hold on to the basketball and get out on transition, you say?  Wow, that sounds like fun! What I'm saying that CU should be able to score at will against this team, especially in light of recent performances.
It has mostly been a struggle for the Cougars this season.  From: the Deseret News
Colorado should also be able to own the glass (although I said the very same thing prior to the UW game...). WSU is ceding nearly 80% of all defensive rebound opportunities to their opponents, and are only marginally better at limiting offensive opportunities.  Since the start of Pac-12 play, they've only won the rebound battle once, their 99-95 OT loss to the Huskies.  While the Buffs have struggled rebounding some when the game breaks open, like we saw on Wednesday, I would still put a lot of money on them getting a good portion of the 50-50 balls available tonight.

Overall, someone's got to be the worst team in a league, and it might as well be the Cougars.  They take inefficient shots, give up a ton of good looks on the offensive end, and struggle with all facets of rebounding. That's nothing to be ashamed of in a conference as top-to-bottom strong as the Pac-12, but that also means that Colorado cannot afford a slip-up tonight.

Star Players - 

Any and all talk about the Washington State roster must start in the paint with baby-face Josh Hawkinson. Averaging a double-double, Hawkinson is as versatile and dangerous on the offensive end as he is on the defensive glass.  The 6-10 junior stretch forward's 17/11 averages are a strong second act for the reigning Pac-12 Most Improved Player, and the result of a continuing crusade to belie the limited expectations of a basketball world that had doubted him throughout his development.
Defensive rebounds... they're what Josh Hawkinson lives for.  From:
Hawkinson exploded as a sophomore in the up-tempo, motion-based system WSU employs.  It allowed him to take advantage of his strong pick-and-pop game and good mid-range shooting skills.  Over half of his shots are taken from that awkward space between five and fifteen feet, and he's making a good 54% of those (64% TS rate overall).  Really, anything inside the arc is money for the kid, but he's at his most dangerous taking jumpers and at the line where he's shooting 83% on his free throws. On the defensive end, he has a startlingly high 33% defensive rebounding rate (second nationally), and his 187 total rebounds account for 40% of WSU's team-wide total.  If there's a Colorado miss to be collected tonight, Hawkinson will be nearby. Beyond that, he's not a dramatically impactful defender, and can be abused by good offensive forwards.

Josh anchors a front line that is a little short-handed. Backup center Conor Clifford hasn't had nearly the impact the team was hoping, as the 7-0 JuCo transfer headed to Pullman over offers from a number of other regional heavies like Utah and Oklahoma State.  He's big and beefy at a listed 283 lbs, and can be tough to move around, but hasn't yet lived up to his recruiting billing, only averaging 7/2 in a largely reserve role. After him, there's almost nothing else that I would consider a interior threat, especially as 6-10 junior Valentine Izundu has been on the sidelines with a foot injury, missing the last four games.  Senior Junior Longrus is still there, but he has only scored a total of six points in five career appearances against Colorado.
Iroegbu can be lightning-quick in attack.  From:
The guard corps is lead by junior Ike Iroegbu.  The 6-2 junior has been handed the unenviable task of replacing lead guard minutes lost in the graduation of the great Davonte Lacy.  He's been putting up nice averages, though, getting about 14 points per contest with a TS% nearly as high as Hawkinson's, but he's no Lacy. Iroegbu is, however, a nasty good three-point shooter, hitting on over 50% of his 46 attempts this season, the result of a lot of hard offseason work.  With a blazing quick first-step, he will challenge Colorado's guards -- luckily he's not as deft as Andrew Andrews at getting to the line (who is?).

The remainder of the starting lineup features the backcourt pairing of Que Johnson and Charles Callison. Que's been around for a bit, now in his 3rd season in Pullman.  A decent traditional wing, the true junior had had some nice games against CU, averaging 10 points per, and is a good three point shooter, as well (43%). Callison is the normal point guard in his first year as a JuCo transfer.  Early in his D-I career he's posting decent assist and steal numbers.

Coaching - 

Crafty veteran of the coaching game, Ernie Kent returned to the sidelines last season after an extended sabbatical to the land of broadcast television.  The results were a mixed bag, but he surprised a lot of people by wringing seven conference wins out of his charges, including home victories over postseason standouts Stanford and Oregon.  His Cougars sprinted on a nightly basis, pushing the offensive pace in a year of slugs while playing absolutely no defense, making them must-watch television in the Pac-12's night-shift schedule for pure entertainment value.  I had fun, WSU even won some games, no problems here.
Coach Kent has been struggling to lift the flags in Pullman this season.  From: the AP
Into year two, however, and things are not looking good. Without Lacy to carry the lead-guard heft, the Cougars are dramatically behind their league counterparts, and slipping fast.  The win over UCLA (his first over a top-25 team while in Pullman) notwithstanding, State is clearly the worst team in the Pac-12, and it's not even close.  What's more, the fans in the Palouse don't seem to give a crap, noted by this line from the post-Utah writeup on Scout: "[Kent] made it a point to praise the crowd (2,717) calling it the “best crowd we’ve had since Gonzaga.”  When you're praising crowds of under 3k in a cavernous gym that holds over 11,000, you've got some problems.  What's more, that 2,717 is essentially WSU's home average this season... not the kind of numbers that keep coaches with losing records on the bench for long.

Prediction - 

My record on the year: 4-2. Against the spread: 2-3-1. Optimistic/pessimistic: CU -0.33 pt/gm)

Lines as of Friday @ 8pm - CU -3.5, O/U 152

Yeesh, I've whiffed on two straight, and by massive margins, too.  Time to drag out an old crutch, and flip a coin. Specifically, this 2007 Utah-backed quarter from the Denver Mint that I found in the lint collector of my dryer last night.  First for winner, tails is CU ('cause tails never fails)... *flips* ... and it's TAILS!  OK, now for margin of victory, heads is small, tails large... *flips* ... TAILS AGAIN!  Fair enough, fate.  Gimmie the Buffs by a bunch.

CU 82 - WSU 71


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